Is your old gas-burner BBQ destined for the scrap heap? We took an $3,600 BBQ for a spin and here’s what we found.
Imagine enjoying a cold refreshing beer inside your air-conned house and controlling your BBQ outside to within a few degrees from an app on your phone. Or you could be down the local pub or in another state still cooking two chooks, a rack of ribs and a dozen burgers or a pizza or bread…or cookies for that matter.
Welcome to what is possibly the future of BBQs, gentlemen. Meet the Traeger Timberline 850. This amazing piece of culinary engineering makes the ubiquitous 4-burner gas BBQ look like 1972 Datsun 180B. But is it worth the price tag of $3,700? You read that right. At that price, the Traeger Timberline 850 is almost comically expensive. But its advocates swear by it and use words like life-changing, next level and mind-blowing. As the owner of Bunnings four-burner that set me back $200, that does a lovely rib-eye fillet, mind you, it was going to take some convincing.
What’s a Pellet Grill?
First off, the Traeger Timberline 850 is a pellet grill. What’s that, you ask? Yeah, I had no idea either, but over the course of a week, three different men told me how good pellet grills were. First a Kiwi courier spied the grill being assembled in the garage told me he had a smaller Traeger and loved it, next level, he said; then the builder next door saw the Traeger and said he’d always wanted one, and finally a good mate, apropos of nothing, said he was getting right into smoking meat, but wanted a pellet grill. WTF? How had I missed this new movement? As an avowed and practicing early adopter, I was ashamed at my ignorance. I assembled the grill, which only took about an hour. By the way, the instructions say it’ll take two people to assemble. Of course, I disregarded this and proceeded to assemble it solo. A word of advice: it will take two blokes to assemble.
How’s the Traeger Work?
First some background. As the original pellet grill brand, Traeger is the most well-known brand. American Joe Traeger developed the first real pellet grill in 1985 and patented it in 1986. Pellet grills burn compressed wood pellets instead of charcoal or the ubiquitous propane swap-n-go gas. The small 1-cm pellets are fed into a heating chamber using an auger drive mechanism. The pellets are ignited by a hot rod. Accessible through an app, the grill’s software controls the auger and a convection fan in order to maintain a steady cooking temperature and smoke throughout the chamber. This method of cooking/smoking with indirect heat eliminates the flare-ups and grease fires that you get with most gas and charcoal grills. The pellet grill is common in the US of A, but still relatively uncommon in Oz. (Although ads for smokers are beginning to appear on TV.)
Thrill of the Grill
So, how’s it handle? You start by filling a hopper with the wooden pellets (available from BBQ shops) and turn it on and set a temperature. That’s it. The Traeger takes about 10 to 15 minutes to reach heat. And now you can bake, smoke, grill and roast…you can do steaks and snags like you did on the ol’ 4 burner, but you can also go pizza, cookies, chook, brisket, bread, veggies…pretty much anything you can cook on a stove or in an an oven you can do in the Traeger. As a test we started with a typical Sunday arvo neighbourhood Aussie BBQ: snags, steaks and a few burgers for the kids. I used cherry-wood pellets as this supposedly imparted a “hearty smoky flavour” (see box).
The first thing you noticed is that there’s nothing to do. Because it’s a convection BBQ, that distributes the heat evenly on all sides, you don’t have to stand and diligently roll the snags and flip the steaks. If you want the grill marks, you can, but you don’t have to. The men at our BBQ still typically gathered around the BBQ, but we all seemed a little lost without a focus point of cooking meat. So, while the kids did bombs in the pool and the women discussed the latest episode of Housewives of Woy Woy, there was only one thing for us men to do: drink beer.
I was cooking for eight adults and six kids so there were six or seven steaks, over a dozen snags, and about 8 burgers… and still plenty of room to spare. The Traeger can be connected to your phone by Wi-Fi. Traeger calls this WiFire and allows you to remotely control the cooking temperature and time. I did this and stared at my phone like a love-struck teenager.
When I pulled the steaks out, the result was nothing short of life-changing, next level, mind-blowing. Yep, no bullshit, it was that good. The scented smoke imbued a subtle yet mouth-watering flavour to supermarket steaks. I usually season my steaks pretty heavily but didn’t this time so as not to confuse the smoking. The steaks and snags were cooked perfectly. And I mean friggin’ perfect. In a good sign, the Housewives’ chatter died away when the food was served, and the compliments flowed thick and fast. Hell, the courier, the builder and my smoker mate were right, this was big. Smoking was really the next level. I was absolutely hooked. I couldn’t wait to get hungry again so I could use the Traeger Timberline 850 again.
The more I started cooking with the Traeger the more obsessive I became about pellets, cooking cycles, smoking and basting, spending hours on the net and YouTube, researching. What were simple afternoon Sunday afternoon neighbourhood BBQs became feasts, incorporating beer-can chicken, ribs, roasts and a hitherto unknown delicacy, brisket. Then I discovered BBQ competitions. While I’m not there yet, I can see the appeal. Was it worth the $3700 price tag? Well, maybe. I know MAMILS (middle-age men in lycra) that will drop five grand on their second road bike or my old man who pours thousands into his beloved sailing boat, so yeah, it would be worth it. It’s a pleasure to use and the results really are next level.
By Todd F. Cole
Choosing your Pellets
Good cooking is all about consistent temperatures and that starts with your fuel for the heat. It’s best to use some type of hardwood for smoking. Wood pellets are made from the by-products of sawmills that would otherwise go to waste. Different flavours suit different foods. The chart below gives a good example outline of what flavours suit what foods. But it’s very much a matter of personal taste.